I am looking at a picture I have in my office taken when my twins were, I don't know, maybe 2 years old. We were at photographer's house where I had gone to try to get some pictures of them taken and for some reason we had to change their clothes. And of course just after I got the clothes off they both took off running — naked as jaybirds. Lucky for me the photographer grabbed her camera just in time.
I love the picture she took even though all you can see of "me" is one foot, one leg and my arms trying to grab the twins in all their naked glory. So, it's me but not me. It's not a picture of a person; it's a picture of the mom.
And I have been keeping that picture in my mind as I think about Michelle Obama and what's happening to her as she embarks on this next step of her incredible journey. Already the picture we see is her, but not really her.
So much has already been said about our soon to be first lady. Some white conservative pundits have questioned her patriotism; some black folks have debated whether she's deferential enough; and all of us get to sit around and debate her wardrobe and where the girls should go to school.
The subtext of all this is that Michelle Obama has just been handed this big gift wrapped in a bow: she has to listen to all our nonsense but so what? Because she gets to live in the "big house," with cooks and drivers and butlers and maids — and she gets to be married to the hottie president and raise those gorgeous girls — and run around and do good works and be the black Jackie Kennedy. Her! A black girl from the South Side of Chicago. Yup, she won the big lottery ticket!
But can I just tell you? Not enough has been said, in my view, about what she is giving up. Not just her privacy (that's a given), but her independence, and her vision for herself, and, not to mention, her own income. Michelle Obama has been for most of her marriage, at the very least, her husband's financial equal — and at times the higher earner. For many married African-American women, in fact probably most, this is the norm. In his book Black Working Wives, Sociologist Bart Landy points out that at least since the late 19th century black middle class wives had an idea of the family that was very different than that of most white women of the time — an idea based more on equality and shared dreams than subservience in exchange for adoration. White women may have caught up decades later but black women have understood for a very long time that work outside the home contributes to equality within it and black women have long embraced the idea that they can do family, community and career — in fact that they must — without sacrificing self.
So Michelle Obama is giving up the right to do her own thing, and with that the right to speak her own truth out loud without fear of the impact on her husband's political career or his standing in the public eye.
I know all this because in a very small way I understand it. My husband (it's no secret) is a very successful attorney. And it was not long into our relationship that I realized the sacrifices I was going to have to make. It's not just the stories I can't do or even talk about because the people involved may be clients or connected to one of his cases. The tradeoff there of course is that I benefit from his income. No, it's really the intangibles that rankle.
Earlier in our lives we were just about neck and neck in the celebrity race but then a couple things happened: I had babies, so I slowed down and his career took off; and so he sped up, so now he gets the Lincoln town car to the airport and I get the station wagon strewn with old toys. He gets the people rushing over to talk to him and I get the elbow shoving me aside. He gets the invitations to glam events and I get the people suddenly recalling long ago friendships we never had so they can call him for interviews. And let's not even talk about the judges I run into who know I'm in the news and ask me what I think about this or that subject and I find myself doing that mental calculation: What if Billy has to appear in front of him or her? What if I piss him off? Do I say what I really think? Or not?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. I wouldn't trade him, or my kids, or my life for anything. I know that my worst day is better than a lot of people's best ones. And I made this deal, just like Michelle Obama made hers. It's just that sometimes I wish, just for a minute, that there were a few more cards in the deck, and the photograph in the picture frame had a little more of me left in it.
The above commentary by Michel Martin is a kickoff to a special Tell Me More collaboration with the online magazine The Root. Tomorrow, the program will feature a broader conversation on future first lady Michelle Obama's new role as "Mom In Chief," and, The Root will host a series of essays on the subject by public officials, writers and thinkers, who are all working moms.